|PR 3/ 2001 VOLUME LXVIII NUMBER 3|
From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present. By Jacques Barzun. HarperCollins. $36.00
"I have tried to write as I might speak with only a touch of pedantry here and there to show that I understand modern tastes." On the first page of this eight-hundred-plus-page volume, Jacques Barzun tells us not to expect the monumental. What he promises instead is an extended conversation about "the art and thought, manners, morals and religion and [their] social setting" of Western civilization during the past five hundred years. The author of more than thirty books, among them studies of Darwin, Marx, Wagner, Berlioz, and romanticism, Barzun in his nineties presents a remarkable summing-up of his learning and wisdom. I was one of his students at Columbia, and in reading this engaging book, I hear once again the voice of a master teacher: erudite, incisive, witty, and provocative. The pedagogical scene is not the lecture hall, but the seminar room, where I sat for the famous graduate course in cultural history which he normally gave with Lionel Trilling. The year I took it Trilling was on leave and Barzun was the sole pilot.
The audience assumed by this book is a liberally educated reader, who is not necessarily a specialist in any of the subjects, but has enough knowledge to be reminded of what is familiar and to be instructed by what is fresh and surprising. "Selective and critical" in his exposition, Barzun avoids the "neutral and encyclopedic." The title, I think, is somewhat misleading about where the strength of the book lies. Our modern history, according to Barzun, is marked by four revolutions in thought and action: the Protestant Reformation; the Monarchs Revolution that brought into being the nation-state; the Enlightenment that produced the French Revolution, which in turn produced romanticism; and our modern period, which begins with the Great War and the Russian Revolution. Although the book does end with a jeremiad about the decadence of our present condition, I did not experience, while reading it, a teleological tendency in that direction. Decadence is not a necessary conclusion to draw from the story or stories that Barzun tells. The books strength is represented by what he says of one of his heroes, Walter Bagehot, best known for his classic study of the unwritten English constitution.
This can be said of Barzun himself. For the historian, judgment is action, and Barzun never shilly-shallies in his judgments.
Barzun has the rare capacity for seeing around an idea or institution in order to provide its historical logic, which might be antithetic to modern sensibilities. Consider, for example, his treatment of the subject of the doctrine of the divine right of kings. The monarchical revolution of the seventeenth century affirmed "monarchy-and-nation" as the basis of "stability and peace" at a time when "sects had challenged or broken authority everywhere." An altogether secular ruler was not at the time within the horizon of possibility.
Barzun goes on to elaborate the theory of monarchical responsibility to God and the consequences of the kings betrayal of his trust, anticipating the atheists contempt for such "empty imaginings" with the admonition that the atheist "should not fall into his own imagining that no sensible man ever trusted this guarantee of right with perfect sincerity. When thinkers and populace agree in an interpretation of the world, it is foolish to suppose that they have lost their reason." One might add that though divine right has its reasons, even in its own time those reasons were challenged. (As is the case with most rules, there are of course exceptions: Germany lost her reason during the Nazi period.)
Barzun makes a similar case for Metternichs counterrevolutionary policy and practice in the wake of the French Revolution.
Question: Did Legitimacy have to take the Metternichian form? And, on the other end of the political spectrum: In responding to the French Revolution, its passions and its terrors, Barzun, consistent with his double view of past events, does not partake in the currently fashionable repudiation of it. He understands the reasons for its militancy and its enduring effects. Though he sympathizes with the romanticist reaction against the Enlightenment (its pragmatic feeling for concreteness and particularity) as a correction to the universalizing bias of the Enlightenment, he provides a scrupulous and generous account of Enlightenment ideas and aspirations. His presentations of Voltaire, Diderot, and other Encyclopedists are among the pleasures of the book. Here Barzun follows Burkhardt in his Judgments on History. "Our moral criticism of past ages can easily be mistaken. It transfers present-day desiderata to the past. It views personalities according to set principles and makes too little allowance for the urgencies of the moment," as does much of the postmodern practice of "historical" writing and literary criticism.
What to make of Barzuns thesis in the final section of the volume that we live in a time of decadence? Even his most sympathetic reviewers find it the most problematic part. First, we need to be clear about what Barzun means by decadence. It defines a time like our own when the absurd is no longer considered eccentric by the leading thinkers, artists, and writers in society, but has in fact become the norm; its defining philosophy is Existentialism. Although Barzun has little to say about postmodernism (Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, and Lacan are conspicuously absent from his discussion), it seems reasonable to infer that he views it as a belated version of existentialist bafflement at the incoherence of the world. (The difference between Existentialism and postmodern philosophy is that existentialists try to transcend the absurd whereas postmodernists cheerfully embrace it.) "The blow that hurled the modern world on its course of self-destruction [a phrase for decadence] was the Great War of 191418." World War I receives more attention than World War II (Barzun is persuasively graphic in describing its horrors and absurdities), because he sees it as containing the seeds of everything that followed. Still, Nazism, World War II, and the Soviet Revolution should have been given more space. In the last chapter, "Demotic Life and Times," he provides in the past tense a catalogue of what ails us as if he were a chronicler in some future time (year 2300). The prologue to the future, which ends the book, foresees a "renascent culture," based on a renewed interest in and a creative misappropriation of the past that the book has surveyed. This renascent culture "has resurrected enthusiasms in the young and talented, who keep exclaiming what a joy it is to be alive," echoing Wordsworths early rapture in the wake of the French Revolution. For Barzun decadence is not an occasion for despair, but rather a kind of clearing of the cultural space in which revival will take place.
Questions remain: Is Barzun, the historian, justified in characterizing our time as decadent? And specifically, what are some of the features of that decadence? Separatism, for one, by which he means the undermining of what he considers "the greatest political creation of the West, the nation-state." The examples are extensive: Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Basques, Chechnya, Kosovo, Bosnia, and so on. Modern violence on a grand scale is the result not of nationalism, but of its undoing. (Or is it the result of the undoing of empire?) Barzun is describing what may be true of the second, not the first half of the twentieth century. (And what about globalization? Is it an alternative to both nationalism and separatism?) Barzun goes on to indict the excesses of the welfare state (its encouragement of an ethos of victimization and dependency), though not the welfare state itself, which "in a culture based as it was on a machine was inescapable," the corruption of representative government by money and the sound "byte" of television in which character is attacked and issues bypassed, the demotic "lifestyle" (a word that the linguistically fastidious Barzun encloses in quotation marks) in which standards, conventions, and good taste are flouted, and the loss of self-confidence, indeed the loss of selfhood often characterized as an identity crisis. (Compared to the horrors of two world wars, the Holocaust, and other genocides, these instances of decadence are pale indeed. They seem less defining of our terrible century.)
A reader may agree with some or all of Barzuns instances of the second half of our century, but then ask whether there are no countervailing examples of positive achievement in the arts, sciences, politics, and the moral life, which would make decadence a theme rather than the definition of our time. He acknowledges the extraordinary achievements of the sciences, though he believes that in the second half of our century they are the applications, as it were, of earlier monumental conceptual achievements. Moreover, he is mistrustful of the role of scientism in our culture: the attempt to impose the scientific method on all the disciplines. Barzun mentions Martin Luther King, Jr. as a positive figure of emancipation; he could have added Nelson Mandela. The increasing awareness of and sensitivity to worldwide suffering and oppression (an effect of the omnipresence of the media) and the corresponding efforts to address them are, when not an encouragement to see oppression and victimization everywhere, positive achievements.
The last chapter is a jeremiad rather than a piece of historical writing. No two jeremiads are alike; nor do we have to be in complete agreement with one to learn from and be moved by it. What needs to be said, however, is that in the final chapter Barzun has to an extent suspended the double view that he has displayed throughout most of the book, in which he generously provided reasons for opposing militancies in favor of what might be called prophetic irony. We are not given reasons for the modern militancies that he deplores. Yet this is not to say that his jeremiad does not have a resonance that should be taken seriously.
Limitations of space prevent me from doing justice to the books many local pleasures, particularly its cornucopia of vivid and witty portraits of artists, composers, and painters and their work, the celebrated, the notorious, and those deserving of more notice than they have received (Rousseau, Beaumarchais, Berlioz, William James, Sydney Smith, founder and editor of the Edinburgh Review, and many many others). The argumentative effect of those portraits is to support the view that men and women, not impersonal forces, make history. Finally, not to be left unmentioned are the periodic digressions on words in which we are surprised to discover the origins of certain key words ("democracy," "relativism," "man," "romanticism," "pragmatism," etc.) and their uses and misuses. The art critic John Russells comment is apt: "This book is what used to be called a liberal education, and it should bring that phrase back into favor."